Island Of The Blessed

    30 March 2013

    I see no reason to lie, so I will confess. I first fell in love with Bermuda as a teenager, when I watched that classic 1970s film The Deep, starring Robert Shaw, a heavily moustachioed Nick Nolte, and the ever sultry Jacqueline Bisset. As she emerged from the ocean gasping for breath, triumphantly holding aloft the medallion, a thin, soaking white T-shirt emphasising her Rubenesque allure, I was transfixed. I have wanted to visit this island ever since, if for no other reason that to pay homage to Jacqueline Bisset’s Circean charms and to see for myself where that image — the stuff of teenage fantasies — was captured.

    More than 20 years later, I can replace my teenage fantasies with more recherché adult ones. Today, Bermuda is an island brazenly devoted to refined elegance and sophisticated indulgence, with a well-earned reputation as a lotus land for -industrious British expats working in finance and law, with golf courses whose greens would put any Oxford college quad to shame, and tax laws that also make it a favourite for American plutocrats and their deeply tanned trophy wives. For a week in November, when I was in dire need of some shamelessly gratifying R&R, it was a combination that suited me -perfectly.

    Discovered in 1505 by the Spanish navigator Juan de Bermudez, Bermuda was brought under British jurisdiction in 1609 by Sir George Somers, in circumstances which many believe provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it remains a self-governing British territory. With its racially variegated population, strong African and Portuguese influences and subtle pigmentocracy, it has the look of a Caribbean island, and with its turquoise waters, verdant palms and delightfully clement weather, the feel of one. In fact, though, it’s caressed by the Atlantic Gulf Stream, 640 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

    A smiling portrait of the Queen greeted me in the airport lounge after landing. All that was needed for the colonial-era, Bacardi-advert idyll to be complete, I thought, would be for a man to turn up wearing Bermuda shorts — and there he was, strolling casually, curiously dapper in long, pulled-up socks. I felt at home already.

    From Michael Douglas to Ross Perot, and from Michael Bloomberg to Silvio Berlusconi, Bermuda is home to a roll call of the rich and famous. Most live in Castle Point, Tuckers Town, near the Mid Ocean golf club — by far the most exclusive and salubrious enclave on the island. This was where, in December 1953, Churchill met Eisenhower and the French prime minister, Joseph Laniel, for a summit.

    My first impression was that, in fact, the whole island is a salubrious enclave. It’s obsessively clean, with beautifully sanitised public spaces and great roads (not a pothole in sight). Quaint, pastel-coloured houses dot the picturesque landscape, all fluffy mauves and soothing ochres.

    The Reefs resort, where I stayed, felt worth the journey on its own: intoxicating ocean views, an opulent but sedate atmosphere, and a strategically placed hot tub overlooking the infinity pool — the perfect place to sip on the island’s trademark tipple, the ‘dark and stormy’ (rum and ginger beer) and watch the sunset. It has
    fine dining and delightfully high-end spa treatments, too.

    My first morning was spent horse-riding along the south coast’s pristine Horseshoe Bay, through Jobson’s Cove and other craggy inlets. It was a gloriously stress-free way to unwind, communing with nature along what is acknowledged to be the prettiest stretch of coastal scenery the island has to offer.

    That afternoon, I made a brief visit to the capital, Hamilton, with its elegant waterfront, its neo-Gothic cathedral and its town crier (clad, despite the heat, in traditional 19th-century apparel — one job I wouldn’t like to have). It is indolent and has a curious metropolitan-meets-rustic chic, but Panama City or Port-au-Prince this certainly isn’t.

    That night, I dined at the 350-year-old Waterlot Inn: lobster, cracked crab and an exquisitely tender trio of rib-eye, filet mignon and striploin steaks. Half expecting birds to fly out of dishes and, truth to tell, somewhat disappointed when they didn’t, I was as impressed by the cooking as by the impeccably refined ambience and intelligently considerate service.

    The next morning, brimming with brio, I endeavoured to be virtuous. I was a little reluctant to try dawn yoga on the beach at the Fairmont Southampton hotel, for fear that it might damage the aura of masculinity which (I am told) I radiate. In fact, I need not have worried: it was the perfect tonic for my muscles, weary from excessive gym training back home. An hour later, after performing the downward dogs in the sand, with my energy lines flowing freely and having greatly increased my suppleness, I felt at peace in both body and mind as I watched the sun rise.

    Later, a visit to the Royal Navy Dockyard felt immensely worthwhile, both for the historical and artistic insights it afforded. Built by prisoners, the dockyard was completed in 1842 and only closed in 1951, but nowadays it functions as a shopping complex. A highlight is the prepossessing, grandiose Commissioner’s House, now housing the National Museum of Bermuda, in which local artist Graham Foster has painted a dazzling mural depicting five centuries of the island’s history. Dazzling and vast: 1,000 square feet over two storeys.

    The town of St George’s, a Unesco World Heritage Site, with its famously unfinished church, is an equally historic spot, perfect for a lunch stop while exploring this side of the island. From there, I found the Crystal Cave (discovered in 1905 by two boys who were trying to retrieve their cricket ball). It is a compelling attraction. You descend into the depths and in near total darkness follow a walkway across the underground lake (the guide carried the torch), to be finally rewarded by a stunning array of stalagmites and stalactites all around.

    In Bermuda, culture and cosseted pampering seem to be easy bedfellows, if not the very best of friends. Weary from my peregrinations, I retreated with alacrity to the Elbow Beach Hotel, where after a delectable fried calamari and shrimp linguine at the beachfront restaurant, I headed to their Mandarin Oriental spa to be further ensconced in luxury. Sheer bliss can be hard to describe, but I have decided that one-and-a-half hours of being gently and expertly rubbed and kneaded by a professional while gazing at the shimmering sea is perhaps the closest that I will legally come in my lifetime to the fulfilment of my fantasies. As her hands edge down my lower back, I can only agree with Mark Twain’s opinion, after a visit to the island in the 1860s: ‘You can go to heaven if you want. I’d rather stay in Bermuda.’

    As a holiday destination, Bermuda excels at guilt-free indulgence of the highest quality. It perhaps lacks the ‘character’ (i.e. poverty) of other islands, but it more than compensates for its alleged lack of ‘soul’ (i.e. blaring music, belligerent beach vendors and crime) with safety, superb infrastructure and all-round affability. There’s no menace, no mess, only high-end tranquillity and relaxation. As Baudelaire put it in ‘L’Invitation au Voyage’, here, all is ‘ordre et beauté, luxe, calme et volupté’.  Now all I need to do is find Jacqueline and I’ll be truly set.